After last night speech, I have no idea what President Obama’s legislative strategy is regarding a public health insurance option.
But I know he’s made a public option more possible. And I know what needs to happen to get it done.
Some pundits are looking at the political comments Obama made about flexibility and compromise to argue he is trying to let progressives down easy. He said:
To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage available for those without it. The public option — the public option is only a means to that end — and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.
Perhaps. He certainly is not making the lack of a public option worthy of a veto. He never has made public option a non-negotiable item, and he’s not starting now.
But he also made the strongest, clearest argument why a public option is the surest way to achieve the goal of quality, affordable insurance for all:
…by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.
And making that case is ultimately more important.
All the veto threats in the world don’t mean anything if congresspeople are compelled to call the bluff. President Bill Clinton delivered a veto threat during the 1994 health care debate, and his own party responded by not giving him a bill at all.
But making a persuasive argument that soothes independent voters and energizes progressive voters can alter the political dynamic, compelling skittish congresspeople to do the right thing out of selfish political interest.
By making a strong argument for a public option in such a prominent forum, President Obama keeps the issue alive and in the headlines. In effect, he is saying to those of us who are already convinced: I put the ball back on the field. It’s your job to get it over the goal line.
That may be unsatisfying. We all want reform to be easy. We all wish a charismatic political leader combined with good poll numbers should be enough to implement the change voters seek.
Sometimes it is. But contested legislation often cannot be achieved with a speech and a snap of the fingers, even with the best of orators.
There will always be well-funded pushback. There will always be legislators afraid to challenge well-funded pushback, worried it will flip poll numbers. There will always be a need to show grassroots intensity to back up poll data and fire up the engine of change.